We knew that the high altitude pass of Agua Negra was lovely but we didn’t realise just how fabulous it was going to be. It knocked our socks off!! Absolutely, without doubt, the best Andean pass yet and at 4,765 metres it was also our highest so far.
Vicuna to San Pedro de Atacama
Copiapo was a very friendly but bland town that finally led us to the coast and it was there that we found some lovely beaches - Dave had his first South American swim in the sea (the water has been too cold until now).
Our ‘day to remember’ started at 4am the following morning when torrential rain forced us to drive off the sand in search of some ‘non sinking’ asphalt. Daylight shows us a black angry sky that brings constant heavy rain - our plans for a two week beach break are dashed. So we make the decision to drive north in the hope of escaping the rain.
We stop at the toxic town of Chanaral (our guide book warns not to swim in the sea unless you want a 3 legged baby!) in search of diesel only to find the town without electric (due to flooding) and the garage staff anxiously dipping the diesel tank for the only diesel pump that is working! We can’t imagine a worse place to be stuck. Our plans were to drive into Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar but the weather is so awful we decide to bypass it and stay on Rt 5.
One hundred and twenty kilometres later, at high altitude and in torrential rain, our middle windscreen wiper suddenly drops onto the bonnet. Luckily we are just beside a truck lay-by and we turn in to try and fix the problem only to discover that the metal arm that connects our 3 wipers to the motor has snapped in two!!
Dave tries everything to make a ‘running’ repair - but it is not possible, our only hope is for me to kneel on the cab floor with my arms in the electrics access panel, manually pulling and pushing the metal rod to operate the windscreen wiper for the drivers side!!! There’s just one problem - if I push the rod too hard the wiper goes flying off the windscreen and Dave has to roll down his window to push it back on - not an easy job.
One hundred kilometres later, just when think we’ve got the hang of it, the rain turns to sleet! It’s too much.
Dave pulls over to use our toilet, completely forgetting we are at 2,600m and not noticing that the toilet is shaped like a rugby ball because of the pressure, he opens the toilet quickly with some explosive results! Meantime I’m in the cab trying to get the feeling back in my left hand. We sit in the truck laughing like hell about the comedy of it all and it’s just at that point the sun appears and the sleet stops. Yahoo. What a day!
The next day we wake up in the desert next to a ‘big hand’ that our late night arrival had hidden from us.
It’s a dry sunny day as we drive down to Antofagasta, we find a welder and fix our problem then spend the night parked on a lovely cliff top. Every person we meet is talking about the rain, the locals are stunned, claiming ‘It NEVER rains here!’ Well, we can confirm that you should never say never! Ha ha
The wonderful Atacama desert lies inland. It’s a place where there’s always something to catch your attention - lovely distant mountains, desert landscapes, lots of huge mining equipment being transported to the copper mines, trains crossing the desert transporting large loads of copper ingots and interesting abandoned salt mining villages from the early 1900’s their rusting metal crucifix cemeteries standing in absolute isolation.
It’s a great drive that ends in disappointment - we wanted to tour one of Chile’s largest mines but the tours are fully booked for a week - we will return next year.
Instead we drive to the desert lagoon of Chiu Chiu for a special night of desert camping, the next day taking the long drive up to the world’s highest geyser field (the best time to arrive is early in the morning when the cold air exaggerates the steam plumes but we wanted to stay in our warm bed, so we didn’t arrive until lunchtime). We were not disappointed and the drive down to the desert village of San Pedro de Atacama was superb.
Unfortunately this traditional village has turned into a desert ‘disneyland’ for tourists. Definitely not our kind of place but the beautiful surrounding sights make it a place worth spending some time. Bolivia next.....
A long descent took us to the Elqui wine valley region and we decided to take advantage of the moonless night by visiting a nearby observatory. This part of the world is famous for two things - pisco sour (a very pleasant grape liqueur) and world class star watching.
The road to the observatory was steep and rough, what made it worse was the fact that we were driving in the dark up a mountain track with corners so tight that we had to do 3 point turns to get around two of them! Our efforts were rewarded with an amazing evening of galaxy gazing - we saw the galaxies largest dying star, Saturn, the milkyway and much, much more. A very special evening.
The coastal town of La Serena was our next stop before we followed the very boring inland Rt5 north passing through the mining regions of Chile.
Autumnal vines in Vicuna
Mano del Desierto and La Portada
One of the many geysers at El Taito. San Pedro de Atacama church and
Cordillera de la Salk Gorge
Paso Sico to Arica
Who would believe it has almost been one year since we were last here? We re-enter Chile via the stunning Paso Sico - a very long high altitude ripio route that remains open year round - full of colourful hills, roaming vicuna and high altiplano lakes. The remote Chilean border guard post is surrounded by breathtaking beauty and our arrival brings some excitement - a family of desert foxes live here - the Mum and her two cubs are very pleased to see us. They eat our meat and bread scraps and then the cheeky cubs jump into the bin to check we haven’t forgotten any other tasty rubbish for them. Our plans were to spend a few days on the pass but the border guards would only permit one night - such a shame as the scenery and camping opportunities here are some of the best yet.
The drive to Calama is tedious and in town the locals are too busy focusing on making and spending money to be friendly. A year ago we were keen to visit the nearby Chuquicamata mine, a mine that measures an astonishing 8 million square metres with a depth of 900 metres - it’s one of the largest open pit copper mines in the world. Yet here we are a year later and no longer interested - we wonder what has happened to us?
We leave town and drive toward the Pacific ocean excited about seeing the sea once again but again we are bored to tears - endless flat nothingness. We’re so bored we play a game of ‘I Spy’ in Spanish but how many times can you guess sand, rocks, rubbish and road? However, there is one little something that we are interested in - we have been following a trail of liquid - we guess that it is a overlander with a leaking water tank, so imagine our horror when we finally catch up with the culprit - a SULPHURIC ACID TRUCK!!!
We overtake the truck and follow the road as it plummets toward the sea, past a pack of starving dogs and some very dangerous hand dug mine shafts only to be confronted by what has to be the ugliest town we have seen in a long time. Tocopilla. Once a booming nitrate port it is now reduced to shanty style housing - the remnants of the boom sit decaying with neglect and salt water, and all of it is overlooked by a monstrous thermal electric plant. Oh dear, oh dear. What have we done?!
All is not lost - with typical wonderful Chilean hospitality we find a quiet place to park for the night and are very kindly offered water to fill our tank and to hose the acid off Nessie. The next morning we leave as the sun fights to climb the steep hills that crowd this shoreline and stumble upon something great! A rock island covered with penguins, pelicans and countless other sea birds, where seals play in the cold water as local men dive for sea urchins using long rubber hoses to breathe with air that is hand pumped. The island is illegally mined for nitrate - local men pull themselves over the sea using a pulley and steel rope system to then spend the whole day collecting nitrate deposits (hardened bird droppings) using small hand picks. A fascinating place.
We stumble upon some lovely scenery as we continue to follow the coastal route north. Remarkable in that the road and residents are squeezed on a narrow piece of land that is crushed between the steep hills and the sea. The coastline seems to be almost continually shrouded in fog, locally called ‘garua’, the hills, the cold waters of the sea and the heat of the desert trap the clouds along the shoreline - sometimes you only get 3 hours a day of clear skies. The only income available to the locals, now that the nitrate boom has died, is the sea - all along the shoreline they gather seaweed, fish, shell fish and anything that can be eaten or sold. It’s a hard existence with fresh water being a rare commodity and grass even rarer.
Iquique is touted as one of Chile’s premier cities a ‘fact’ that has been helped by the government making this region a tax free zone to try and encourage people to move here. The rich and spoilt spend the day cruising the streets in sports cars and at night cruising the lovely beaches playing very loud music and getting drunk as hell as they throw their beer bottles all over the shoreline. The middle classes are identical to those of Calama and the poor spend the day recycling rubbish to pay for food and to fund crippling alcohol problems, and at night sleeping under a cardboard box. We could be describing London, Barcelona or Sydney - it’s really just another typical big city of the world! We pass the president as he drives to the airport and we wonder what his visit was for - tax free shopping or some clever ideas to help the poor of the city?
We leave the unsmiling Iquique behind and drive back into the desert to admire the world’s largest human geoglyph near Huara - he is a whopping 86 metres high, dates from AD 900 and sits in a area that is still very brown and desert like but at least is atmospheric. Onward and upward for a big surprise - Pisagua feels like it’s at the end of the world - a isolated coastal village that has a terrible yet fascinating history. Once a boom nitrate town with a theatre, hospital, mansions and a train station these decaying buildings now sit patiently waiting for the sea to swallow them as the local residents (all 250 of them) survey the scene from their ramshackle homes. Pinochet remembered this town from his earlier military days and later decided it was a suitably quiet place to build a prison camp - it was after his fall from grace that several unmarked mass graves were found. And yet, very oddly, we find it utterly appealing.
We continue to follow our route toward San Pedro de Atacama past adobe villages and a great gorge to spend a night by a lonesome tree with excellent views to the Salar before arriving in the San Pedro once again. What a difference a year makes - the village is very quiet but all the tourists are speaking English - it’s a cultural shock for us! We had planned on a week or so in San Pedro but having been here before and seen most of the surrounding sights, we move on after spending a wonderful night camping with views over Valle Luna - our plans to spend at least one month in North Chile seem to be upset.
Hungry young fox,
roaming vicuna herd,
and the stunning
on Paso Sico.
The lonesome tree and me looking just a little scared at Valle Luna view!
Enormous mining equipment, ‘I SPY’ scenery and Tocopilla - a town in desperate need of a makeover!
A desert golf course and other sights in the Tarapaca Region.
Iquique city sights.
And Chile rewards us the next day when we awake to see the sea ‘boiling’. We wonder what is happening and drive to the plaza for a better view. It looks like hundreds of fish are jumping off shore - the local fishermen tell us it’s dolphins! Immediately we negotiate a fee to be taken out in their boat to investigate.
And they are right - the fishermen estimate one THOUSAND dolphins but we guessed it to be more like six to seven hundred. We were beside ourselves with excitement, not knowing where to look, totally surrounded by dolphins jumping, tail slapping and hunting - even the local sea lions followed us out to join in the fun! Dave hung off the front of the boat to photograph the dolphins as they swan under our boat but they regularly would surface right beside him spraying him with sea water. It was without doubt one of the most magical experiences of our trip. It was such a rare thing that the local school took all the children out of class and put them on a boat to experience the moment. We can’t believe our luck.
Our excited fishermen were happy to earn some tourist money - great guys!
We make our way back to the main route north from Pisagua and follow a road that seems to plummet and rise from one valley floor to the next. We drive up 1,000 metres (3,333 feet) in under 10 km’s (6.25 miles) only us and one other truck manage the hill without having to stop due to overheating. Our ups and downs are interspersed by dramatic ancient hillside geoglyphs and, for the first time, fertile green valleys crouching in the midst of the desert. Arica is a fertile oasis in the desert with long beaches leading to the Peruvian border. Yet again we have a decision to make - there is a lovely Andean pass leading to Bolivia from here or we can enter Peru by following the coast. We spend a couple of days exploring the friendly city before making the decision to enter Peru.
Desert art near Arica, the wonderful Azapa Museum and a 1924 train at rest.